Much has been made of an attitude makeover within the Virginia football program under new head coach Mike London. The players say it's genuine.
"Everybody is excited to be around the McCue Center, in the weight room, in conditioning," defensive tackle Nick Jenkins said, "where 12 months ago, it was a little bit of a drag. Everybody, all 108 guys, are excited to be around the program."
So, even before summer camp last August, before the season-opening loss to William and Mary, before the 3-9 record that sealed Al Groh's dismissal, it was a drag to be around the program?
"Yep," Jenkins said.
Optimism and enthusiasm are predictably high at preseason football media gatherings, but even more so at Virginia's on Wednesday.
"I think we're on the right path to establishing the kind of culture that Coach London wants," quarterback Marc Verica said. "The thing that you have to understand is that it's a process, and it's still a transition. We haven't played any games yet.
"But we are laying the foundation. He's done a good job and everyone has done a great job of buying into what he's trying to say. We've laid kind of the framework for the culture that we want to establish here. We want to establish a winning culture, and in order to do that, we have to go out and play the games."
Anthony Poindexter was the only assistant London retained from Groh's staff.
"It starts with the coaches," Jenkins said. "It starts with the head man, all the way down. When the coaches are out on the field running around with you, it boosts morale and makes it more exciting to be around."
Practice begins Friday in preparation for the season opener Sept. 4 versus Richmond.
"I would say at this point, I think we're right where we want to be," Verica said. "Everyone's doing the right thing, everybody has bought in. There's a lot of good feedback coming in, a lot of support and optimism, so I think we're on the right track."
One of the most discussed schematic changes under London is the switch from a 3-linemen, 4-linebacker base defense to a 4-3 set.
"It's different, but I don't think it's a big deal," middle linebacker Steve Greer said. "In the big picture, football is still football and you still have to put yourself in position to make plays."
That said, several defenders said they preferred the 4-3 to the 3-4.
"I like the 4-3 because it gives you more ability to make plays and run to the ball," Greer said.
In Virginia's version of the 3-4, Jenkins said, linemen often simply were charged with occupying blockers. "Clogging holes," he said.
"In this system, everybody from D-linemen to safeties are running to the ball," Jenkins said. "I love playing 4-3. It's a chance for D-linemen to get to the edges and get into the backfield."
Among the guests Wednesday was the first Peninsula District tailback to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
Blessed with sprinter's speed, Michael Johnson ran for 2,028 yards and 33 touchdowns to lead Heritage to an undefeated state championship season in 2000 as a junior. A year later he headed to Virginia, where his career was marred by injuries and fumbles.
Johnson said he was in town visiting Poindexter. After working as a counselor for troubled youth in Northern Virginia, he's set to enroll at Liberty University, where he'll pursue a master's degree in sports management.
"I hope I changed some lives," Johnson said of his counseling work.
While at Liberty, Johnson said he will help athletes on the football and track teams, but not in an official coaching capacity.
"I might want to coach in the right situation," he said. "But I think I want to stick with the management side."
Johnson's aim: become a sports agent. He appears to be in playing shape and said he weighs about 185 pounds, the same as he did at Heritage.
Whether it's due to personal development or the new defensive scheme, Aaron Taliaferro, a redshirt junior linebacker from Gloucester, figures to see the field this season. He stepped in for Greer during spring ball and impressed everyone — coaches and teammates.
"We kind of call him 'Lazarus,' " defensive coordinator Jim Reid joked. "He rose from the dead."
Taliaferro redshirted as a freshman and saw action in only three games in his first two seasons. Reid said that he was voted Most Improved Player on defense and referred to him as "dynamic."
Also, London said that sophomore LoVante' Battle (Phoebus) is moving from safety to outside linebacker.
"Mother Nature kind of took over," London said, explaining that Battle has bulked up a bit from weightlifting, conditioning and maturity beyond his present listed weight of 195 pounds. Battle is behind LaRoy Reynolds and Tucker Windle on the post-spring depth chart at one outside linebacker spot.